What Do We Exactly Mean When We Say Food is Ethical?

What Do We Exactly Mean When We Say Food is Ethical?

By definition, the word “ethics” has a pretty straight-forward meaning. Essentially, it is a series of moral principles that govern an individual’s behaviors and actions. It acts as a dividing line between what’s considered “right” and “wrong.” Ethics applies to many areas of life. But one of its more recent applications is in the food industry. Combining the words “ethics” and “food” seems like it should be simple, but it’s in fact a complex topic that’s the subject of much debate. Ultimately, food ethics encompasses ethics in a variety of areas, including animal ethics, environmental ethics, and ethics related to food industry employment and food distribution. What is considered “right” and “wrong” in these areas varies widely based on personal beliefs, geographical location, and societal norms.

Animal Ethics

One area that influences the topic of food ethics is animal ethics. The term “animal ethics” is one that’s primarily used in academia to describe the relationship between humans and non-human animals. This relationship is an ideal model of how animals should be treated, which is with respect, kindness, and consideration. But the proper treatment for animals, especially animals designed for human consumption, is seen through many different lenses. Some people (and some cultures) are opposed to the killing of any animal for food. Some even refrain from buying and supporting any products made with animal parts. These individuals would argue that it is unethical to walk into a grocery store and buy any type of meat, fish, eggs, and sometimes dairy, cheese, and honey. Other individuals feel that it is perfectly ethical to consume animals, provided only as many are raised and slaughtered as needed for subsistence. Other people argue that raising animals commercially for widespread consumption is ethical as long as the animals are given plenty of space to roam and have an overall high quality of life when they are alive.

Environmental Ethics

The term “environmental ethics” is another component in the topic of food ethics. This term describes the relationship between humans and the natural environment. It is a similar principle to the concept of animal ethics in the sense that with environmental ethics, the guiding principle is that Earth and its natural resources should not be depleted or destroyed. Like animal ethics, environmental ethics is a complex principle. When applied to the context of food ethics, it refers to any aspect along the food production line, from raising animals or produce to manufacturing and shipping it, that could negatively affect the environment. Some people believe that it is unethical, for instance, to cut down large swaths of forest to create fields for growing crops. Others feel that using fertilizers, pesticides, and genetically modifying plants and seeds to create more product is an acceptable practice, while others do not. A topic of especially heated controversy is that of large-scale agricultural operations where the emphasis is on producing food for commercial gain. These operations typically get blamed for exposing their animals and human workers to poor treatment and dangerous conditions. For the workers, large-scale operations are also often criticized for not providing sufficient pay. Furthermore, large-scale operations are often blamed for using unsound practices that pollute the air and waterways in the surrounding environment.

The Human Component

Humans are a critical factor in many parts of the food ethics debate. This includes everyone who works directly in the food industry to consumers. Even the debate over who gets access to food of a certain quality and quantity is part of the question. Many individuals, either through religious beliefs or societal influences, believe that access to clean and sufficient supplies of food and water is a basic human right. But the reality is that the availability of food is quite polarized. While some people have access to as much food and as many varieties of food as they want, others do not. They may suffer from starvation and malnutrition as a result.

Employment within the food industry is another component of food ethics. From farmers to processing plant employees and grocery store clerks to restaurant staff, there is a considerable amount of debate over what fair working prices and conditions should be. This is the case both within the United States and around the world. Societal norms and standards are a driving factor in the global debate about correct and incorrect treatment and wages for food industry workers. For instance, the median annual salary for a farmer in the United States is about $66,000. In contrast, an American might be shocked to learn that the average annual salary for a farmer in India is just over $1,000 USD. This is a surface-level comparison that does not take into other factors like the cost of living and salaries in other professions in those areas. However, when taken at face value, it is enough to spark questions from food ethicists about whether the salary of workers outside of the United States is adequate. The same principle applies to working hours and working conditions.

Personal Choice

The topic of food ethics is controversial and highly personal. There are many layers – and answers – to the question of what is right versus what is not when it comes to food. Ultimately, the matter is one of personal choice. Like politics, a roomful of people is not going to agree on the answer to correct food ethics. If you are wondering what the “right” principles are to follow when it comes to food ethics, the best answer is just to make choices that you believe in and feel comfortable with. Others will always question your decisions, but you have the right and power to decide what issues and matters are most important to you when considering your choice of food, where it comes from, and how it gets to you.

Find ethical, free range and or 100% grass-fed meats here: Fair Food Finder

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Guest post by: Kylie

Kylie is the editor at Green & Growing.

She enjoy the outdoors, especially when she can go on a fun hike or adventure. She likes to focus on the perks green living.

She feels it is so important to take care of our earth and hope to spread more awareness as she edits and writes.


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Comments (2)

  1. Whats simple in principle becomes complex in practice, and in different contexts. A battery chicken costing €3.50 is ethically bad from the animal welfare point of view. But if you are scraping to put food on the table, it’s a responsible choice. You can feed a family of four over two main meals. There are different kids of sustainability. What represemts environmental sustainability – for example organic chicken at 15 euros a pop – and sustainability for the farmer – a premium organoc product with a better finacial return – does not always equal sustainability for the end consumer. Or another example. We might excoriate large scale commercial farming for it;s treatment of labour, livestock and environmental resources. But it’s efficiencies and industrial capacity have fed us capably, reliably, and cheaply for decades. The Haber Bosch process for nitrogen fixing may be destroying soil fertility, waterways and wildlife, but it has meant untold tens of millions made it through the twentieth century without starving.

    Trying to imagine a universal food system where sustainability exists across the system – environmental sustainability, economic sustainability for producer, consumer and middlemen, good welfare for the livestock – seems impossible. Because what sustainable and ethical means changes depending on whose needs we are looking at. Cheap food is a blessing to those who need it, and a curse to those who produce it. Both are stuck in contexts with limited choice ( for the poorer consumer, not enough money for alternatives, for the producer, the power of the processors and large retailers to determine price and claim the lions share of the profit).

    You can’t solve food ethics without solving larger problems fundamental to societal structures.

    1. Hi Keith, thanks for commenting. It’s good to get a broad range of thoughts on this topic. It is no doubt complex. Context and perspective will have a larger influence on what one thinks is ethical food. We agree wih you that finding a sustainable balance under the current social-economic world is impossible. Which is why we need to challenege the current socio-economic sturctures that leave us with little choice and therefore determines our capacity to act in a more sustainable (ethical?) way. With this “What is” series we hope to do raise awareness, questions, opinions etc so that we can have these conversations on food/farming, its interconnections and contradictions so that perhaps from these we can build pathways of transition to a sustainable, fairer one.

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